A Longer Note On Kelly Johnson

The Braves signed Kelly Johnson to a minor league deal last week, and though he’s not assured of anything but an invite to spring training and a chance to compete for a bench spot, we’re going to write him up here. This was supposed to be Brandon Beachy’s writeup, but that’s not happening, so we’re going to go on a Kelly Johnson nostalgia field trip instead.

KJ was the Braves’ second first-round pick in 2000, chosen out of high school 38th overall. He posted a string of impressive minor league seasons in leagues he was young for, playing mostly third and short. But the Braves of the time were rather blocked at third and short, so in 2004, Kelly learned the outfield.

He was called up to the big club in May of 2005 after the end of the brief and inglorious Raul Mondesi era. Having torn up the International League to a 1.018 OPS, Kelly was immediately slotted third in the batting order… and proceeded to go 1 for his first 30 in the majors.

No matter, really; in the 112 plate appearances following that start, KJ hit .348/.459/.587, establishing a theme of streakiness that would define his Braves career. That first hot streak coincided with the callup of Brian McCann and the unofficial rise of the Baby Braves movement. Johnson, McCann, Jeff Francoeur, Ryan Langerhans, Wilson Betemit, Kyle Davies, and a dozen or so other rookies got a duct-tape-and-chewing-gum operation over the hump for one last division title.

Sometime before the 2006 season, KJ blew out his UCL and missed the year rehabbing. After Marcus Giles left as a free agent the next offseason, the Braves decided Kelly’s former infielder skills could come in handy again, and they taught him second base. He was great, but streaky as ever, as a regular second baseman, posting a career year .831 OPS in 2007.

The following year wasn’t notable for Kelly, but it was notable for me w/r/t Kelly. By late July of 2008, the Braves were out of the race, but a friend who had just taken the bar exam had free mid-level seats and wanted to celebrate. So to the ballpark we went, and down the left field line we sat.

Frankly I have no idea what else happened in this game, except that Kelly was up and shot a pretty hard foul ball down the left field line. The ball took one carom off a seatback and redirected — only losing a bit of its velocity in the process — right at us. I was flanked by my girlfriend and my aforementioned friend’s fiancee, both of whom screamed and ducked. I — out of something like idle curiosity — held up my right hand, and I was as surprised as anyone that the ball stuck there.

My brother, who was also there, calls it my greatest lifetime athletic achievement, and given that I washed out of organized sports by the time I was 13, he’s not wrong. I’ve of course kept that ball displayed prominently since then; my dad’s been going to major league games for 50 years now and he’s not caught one yet, so who knows when we’ll ever see another foul ball in my family.

Anyway, Kelly Johnson. He played one more year with the Braves in 2009, dropped off offensively, and was nontendered. From there he began a journeyman’s tour, with stops in Arizona, Toronto, Tampa, New York, Boston, and Baltimore. Last year he hit .215/.296/.362 across the latter three clubs, and now here we are.

I hope Kelly Johnson sticks with the Braves this year. The Baby Braves are my age, and so they are grown and either out of the league or hanging on to the downslope of their careers. But we aren’t old, though, Kelly or I; I learned that lesson from the Baby Braves the first time around, when the sight of all these no-name rookies in what had always been Maddux, Glavine & Smoltz, LLC’s office made me feel old at the ripe age of 23, in that slightly dramatic way that college kids get about the end of college. Oddly enough, perhaps you’ve got to get just a bit older to recognize that you aren’t at all.

No longer Baby Braves, but not old men either; come hang out this summer, Kelly Johnson, and perhaps I’ll work on getting this foul ball autographed.

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20 thoughts on “A Longer Note On Kelly Johnson”

  1. Good things always happen when you try to make a play…even if you don’t realize you’re trying to make a play.

    Maybe these turn-back-the-clock moves are going to culminate with Fredi back at 3rd base?

  2. Fredi would have handed the ball off there, but it would have been the third string back. His reasoning would have been:

    “He is our first down back when the wind is blowing form the south. We didn’t want to burn Lynch out there and not have him for the next game.”

  3. Fredi would have pulled Lynch and subbed Constanza out there to push the ball over the line.

  4. @12 – I thought a field goal was the closest equivalent to a bunt I could find. Especially since it would just put them within one point and not even tie the game.

  5. Fredi’s team would have lost in the first round, or melted down in the final month of the regular season, and thus not have been in the Big Game.

    Though if they did make it, Fredi would have given the ball to Hale instead of Kimbrel.

  6. I’m with Alex from last thread where I don’t think an unconventional bit of playcalling is a bad thing in that circumstance, and Seattle had benefited from its aggressiveness to that point. People overcorrect for freak accidents in pretty much every human endeavor, including hindsight-judging this play that probably goes for an INT maybe once every 100 Wilson throws.

    Thus, Fredi would have tipped his cap to the Patriots.

  7. Anyway, Kelly Johnson. He played one more year with the Braves in 2009, dropped off offensively, and was nontendered. From there he began a journeyman’s tour, with stops in Arizona, Toronto, Tampa, New York, Boston, and Baltimore. Last year he hit .215/.296/.362 across the latter three clubs, and now here we are.

    The one misgiving I had with this account is that KJ slashed .284/.370/.496 with the DBacks the year after we nontendered him. He was a 5.5 WAR monster at his peak, not so much a journeyman in the making. Sure, it was driven by a BABIP spike, but if the Braves cared about those kinds of things, then maybe they might have predicted some bounceback, given that his BABIP was just .247 in his last year with the club. According to the rate stats, KJ was the same player in 2008.

    We’re kinda dumb sometimes, is what I’m saying.

  8. Fun story, W. C. G.

    I was sad to see KJ go the first time around and was happy had found some success with the D-backs the following year. I hope he sticks this year, if for no other reason than he’s a familiar face and would be easy to root for.

  9. Great write-up, great catch. Two women watching your heroics; like a boss!

    It’s a long hot season and people who play multiple positions are always welcome. Let’s hope he hits enough. Maybe along the lines of the best Mark DeRosa.

    I think the jokes at the start of this thread are very appropriate. I’ve been dismayed by the stories the last few days trying to explain why a pass wasn’t such a bad idea.
    The NFL and sports networks spend countless hours trying to give us an “insider” feel, to give us the illusion that we know a lot about the game. Then when something happens that offends our common sense, we get stories that we maybe really don’t know as much as we think we do.

    Baseball, like all great things, provides greater pleasures the more you look at it. Pro football provides deeper levels of legend, jargon, and baloney.

    Baseball belongs to all of us. Pro football, we have to rent.
    The real National Passtime is still played in the summer.

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